PICTURED: Charity leaders and elected officials break ground on Ventura Springs. Photo by Alex Wilson
by Alex Wilson
Stephen Peck wanted nothing to do with the military after his harrowing experiences as a U.S. Marine fighting in the Vietnam War.
Instead, after the war, Peck became a documentary filmmaker. He found himself drawn, however, to telling stories about people who faced financial hardships and mental health challenges after serving in the military.
“Those experiences and those memories stay with you,” Peck told the Ventura County Reporter.
He went on to explain that while making films about veterans, he learned that by the early 1990s over 30% of homeless men were veterans. Inspired to help other veterans, he switched careers to become an advocate for them. Peck now serves as president and CEO of U.S. Vets, a charity providing housing and services to homeless veterans nationwide. Today, U.S. Vets helps over 20,000 veterans every year with services including mental health treatment and career counseling, and has developed thousands of supportive housing units.
The charity has not yet established itself in Ventura County, but that’s now changing.
On Wednesday, June 15, Peck looked over a construction site in East Ventura during a groundbreaking ceremony for Ventura Springs, a new supportive housing project for veterans which has been many years in the making.
“It really is gratifying to see this come to fruition,” Peck said.
The project is rising on 10 acres south of Telephone Road and west of Wells Road, next door to a California Department of Veterans Affairs home that was originally planned for a major expansion on the vacant site where the new Ventura Springs facility will be located.
Renderings of the Ventura Springs plans show two- and three-story buildings surrounding courtyards meant to foster a sense of community. There will be 120 units with up to three bedrooms to accommodate formerly homeless veterans as well as low-income veterans and their families, along with two additional units for managers. A community garden, fitness center and computer lab are also planned.
When Ventura’s state veteran’s facility was completed in 2009 with 60 beds, it was envisioned as just a start of a larger project that would serve several hundred veterans by 2020, officials explained. But the state’s expansion plans never materialized.
“It got reduced in scope,” said Ventura County Supervisor Matt La Vere, who previously served on the Ventura City Council. “A lot of that money got reallocated to L.A. So it ended up being a 60-bed facility and we realized there was much more need locally than 60 beds.”
Without commitment from state officials to complete the project, Ventura city leaders took the lead to forge a vision of a veteran’s facility serving not just elderly veterans, but also younger ones living on the streets and low-income veterans with families to support. Land that was donated by the city to the state for the expansion ended up reverting back to city ownership, and at the end of a competitive process, U.S. Vets and another charity co-developer, A Community of Friends, were selected as partners to build and operate the facility.
The $69 million project is funded by a variety of sources including city, state and federal money, tax credits, and private donations from companies including Home Depot and Bank of America.
La Vere told the VCReporter that he was happy to be a part of the groundbreaking event.
“This is something that we’ve been told for many years is a critical need,” he said, noting the mental health challenges facing many veterans. “The bottom line is that we have veterans on our streets who shouldn’t be there. This is going to help get us to everyone’s goal of having zero veterans on the streets in Ventura County.”
Ventura Mayor Sofia Rubalcava told the VCReporter that people who live at Ventura Springs will benefit greatly.
“I think this facility is going to give people a lot of hope. Hope to be able to do something different in their life, to have stable housing, and not just housing, but to have all the supportive services that can be provided. I think it will be a huge step forward,” she said.
Rubalcava is also happy that Ventura Springs will provide housing and help for veterans of all ages as well as their families, in contrast to the state facility next door, which is focused on elderly veterans.
“I think it’s going to give people a really good foundation to be able to do whatever else they want to do, whether it’s go to school or get a better job,” said the mayor. “And for the kids who are going to be part of this community, I think it’s going to allow them to feel how much the community cares about them and invests in them. So I think it’s going to be a springboard for a lot of good things to come.”
The project is expected to be completed around the end of 2023.